Full Circle: The Canvas Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral
Lauren Artress, June 3, 2015
Monday morning, May 18th, I stood outside the wire mesh fence that now encloses the entire back of the nave including the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth. On that quiet, misty morning few people were around to witness the workmen, focused on only their tasks, cover the much-revered Chartres labyrinth. Sadness settled in as if I were bidding goodbye to an old friend. Relief followed as I noticed that cloth was first laid down to protect the well-worn stones of the labyrinth. It was as if the workmen were putting it to bed for a quiet and long earned rest. All one can see now is a sea of plywood covering the floor of most of the nave.
The very same night after our Walking a Sacred Path opening reception, our leadership team (the small group facilitators, our logistics coordinator, Veriditas ED Dawn Matheny and myself) entered the cathedral after hours. We moved the hundreds of chairs (including all the chairs originally in place over the labyrinth added to that area!) from the South transept. Our task was to unveil the new 42-foot canvas labyrinth lovingly made and graciously donated to Veriditas by John Ridder the owner of Paxworks.
John had packed the three travel bags and marked them ‘red’, ‘white’ and ‘blue’ and a humorous moment of confusion occurred when we became uncertain whether it was the American flag "red, white and blue" or the French flag "blue, white, and red" that was a clue to which part went where! Finally we figured it out, unpacked each part, careful to Velcro the three pieces of the labyrinth—the exact replica of the stone labyrinth—and placed it to make sure it fit as a ‘dry run’ for our labyrinth walk on Wednesday night. It was stunningly pristine and beautiful. The officials of the cathedral were close by, took photos but said little. I could tell they were impressed.
Challenged to manage all the details—meeting the participants, completing the opening night—I had not thought much about what it would mean to be working with a brand new canvas labyrinth in this new location. So, it was eye opening when we again unrolled the labyrinth for our private evening walk in the Cathedral. The canvas beautifully graced the transept floor extending from pillar to pillar across the bays.
Suddenly realized I was alone with this labyrinth as the others scurried away to set the hundreds of candles that light the pilgrims’ path. To ‘warm’ it, dedicate it to deepen the pilgrim's path and open the archetypal field, I have a favorite Tibetan bowl attuned to the sacred space of Chartres Cathedral. I walked in a clockwise pattern starting at the outer circuit and slowly winding my way in, not via the path, but by the circuits. The security guard came by and asked what I was doing. Even in my pitiful French, I know the words "cold" and "warm" so it was easy to say I was helping the new labyrinth that was cold become warm.
As I was circumambulating it, suddenly there was a chill and a jolt of fear ripple through my body. My fear? Oddly it felt like it came from the canvas. Talk about stage fright; hand painted in Indiana, to make its debut in Chartres Cathedral in France is a pretty big stretch! My gentle walk and the sound the bowl seemed to calm us both. As the time approached, I went out to the North Porch to greet our pilgrims and lead them into the crypt.
By the time our group reached the labyrinth the North Rose window glistened in the early evening setting sun and the Fulbert Ensemble was in full voice. We walked, falling into the flow of community, some gently swaying to the music, tears often flowing. As we walked, the stones began to show through the canvas, imprinting their ancient presence.
The thirteenth century North Rose Window, funded by Queen Blanche of Castile window, emanated unexpected gifts. In the center is Ann, holding her infant daughter Mary. Rather than being a long distance away, mother and child were just across the way with the altar in between, witnessing, embracing, and gracing our walk. We were walking the labyrinth in “Mary’s House”, standing in her feminine lineage. In our reflection time the next morning, many women felt this powerful pull. Painful memories were released, emotional wounds healed. To stand in the center of the labyrinth is to be in the womb of Mary; seeds were planted that have yet to unfold.
Some participants said they felt the labyrinths communicating to one another; others found answers they didn’t expect. Those of us who walk labyrinths know the healing powers of this pattern; a template that allows body, mind and soul to flow together in harmony.
So, in these precious moments things came full circle. I opened the canvas labyrinth in San Francisco's Grace Cathedral on December 31, 1991. Now, with the stone labyrinth resting, Our Lady of Chartres' loving arms embraced this labyrinth and welcomed it into her home.